A History of St. Paul’s United Church, Grande Prairie
The roots of St. Paul’s, Grande Prairie have been weaved into the stories of Clairmont, Sexsmith, DeBolt and even Valleyview; with the Presbyterian Mission of the 1900’s and the ministry of Sandy and Agnes Forbes. Both committed to Foreign Missions and confident, ” in him who was unmistakably going before us;” in 1909 Alexander Forbes drove a stake into the knoll where our church stands and wrote, “Presbyterian Church;” later named: McQueen Presbyterian Church aith a log building being built and dedicated in 1911.
As the region opened, so too the opportunities for mission and having established the ground work in many of the settlements throughout the region, Sandy and Agnes returned from Fort Saskatchewan to begin work in earnest. At one time, pioneers, missionaries and one of the few sources of medical help, they looked after the spiritual and physical needs of everyone. The Edmonton Women’s Home Mission Society offered financial support for the young men and women who served as doctors, nurses and even druggists. A hospital was constructed and kitchens to care for the sick. A number of “firsts” followed: baptisms, weddings and funerals; a library in the church. As the number of settlers grew from Scotland, Eastern Canada and the United States, so did the work of the church and many remember of those who worked alongside Sandy and Agnes to meet the new arrivals. Each person strengthened the fabric of the community by the challenges and opportunities they shaped. In the church, there were more members to serve as Elders and teach Sunday School, relieving Sandy of the responsibility. The women gathered as much for fellowship, as together improving for many their health and the standard of living. In 1921 the “Canadian Girls in Training” group was started and continues to this day.
When Church Union birthed the United Church of Canada, Rev. Forbes disagreed with the guiding principles of this new denomination and his ministry in the region came to an end. However, his legacy remains in the naming of a school and the Presbyterian Church; the relocation of the original log church near our museum and their homestead becoming a provincial historic site.
With Union, McQueen Presbyterian became St. Paul’s United and a new church building was constructed near the original log church in 1925-26. As with many congregations in the North, St. Paul’s has been served by both clergy and lay people, some coming as missionaries with larger districts to serve; others of more independent mind who were successful in what we now call ‘church planting’ and gathered their followers into the work of St. Paul’s because they were attracted to the denomination’s mission and ministry.
Through the Second World War and the post war boom we remember particular men and women who gave extraordinary service as we responded to the growing number of children, making space for Sunday School with new buildings, for social events supporting one another during those bleak times; using the radio, to stay in touch with the region; their art and craftsmanship creating both pulpit and table to enrich our worship.
The 1950’s brought pressure for space and a new Christian Education building was constructed while the log church was used for A.A. and worship space for the Lutheran congregation. A new manse was purchased and as the need arose a second person was called to help our clergy. As our buildings aged and the congregation grew, discussions of a new church building began. Undeterred by debts for the manse, C.E. Wing and organ, the congregation constructed the present building in 1956-57. Of particular note is that one of the men who helped clear the land for the original log building in 1911 was present in 1956 to turn the sod for the new sanctuary. Along with this St. Paul’s had a radio ministry – broadcasting services on a local station from 1942-1960.
Our service to the community continued. We took responsibility for the Wapiti Lodge; housing for rural high school students, which later became a shelter for those who found themselves homeless. AA groups have been meeting at St. Paul’s for 60 years. A new set of “firsts” were celebrated: candidates for ministry, new groups for our growing young adult members, newsletters and even ‘envelope’ stewardship campaigns.
In 1961 we celebrated 50 years of unbroken ministry to the Peace Country; an October day remembering our past with ‘frontier food’ and shared memories. It was only a resting spot and in the ensuing decades of church growth, beloved musicians retired, our efforts to stay in touch grew, making the newsletter an important resource and organizations matured: The United Church Women was formed and a new men’s group: “As those who Serve,” AOTS; came to be. Pictures of our ‘new members classes’ and the size of our CGIT groups fill a whole page! Notable leaders; Moderator’s past and present gathered here with the Presbytery and we have even hosted the Alberta and Northwest Conference!
The list of clergy, laity, students and candidates for ministry who have served us are still remembered and their pictures are at the entrance of our church. Our mission continued: encouraging the establishment of the United Appeal campaign which funds need groups today and the meals-on-wheels program. In our stewardship, we have opened our doors to countless groups and gatherings; each one meeting a need.
60 years of service followed 50 and we reached another milestone: The construction of the new C.E.Wing in 1986; made possible by a grant from “Ventures in Mission,” a Mission and Service Fund sponsored program.
In the decades that followed we have sought to respond to our city and our growing faith and have lived through a series of ‘ups and downs’: Members chose to transfer to the Presbyterian church in response to our national support for the ordination of gay men and women. We held our first summertime Vacation Bible Schools and bought the ‘new’ red hymnbook. We became a “smoke-free” building; ‘cam-corded’ worship for later broadcast and started an Outreach fund to help those having ‘fallen through the cracks.” We bought our Handbells, began the Healing Touch group and painted a Labyrinth on the floor of the lower hall; each one, beginning an important ministry. We participated in endless rounds of talking about restructuring for ministry and sponsored the Doberlani (from Kosovo) and then the Lemu (from Ethiopia) families to Canada. We approved a new policy for same-gender marriage and shared in a variety of adult learning possibilities. Humour and fun have never been overlooked: From hearing a confusing story about “green and blue people”– to blow torches being used to thaw out a leg carrying too much blood thinner — to ‘trap lines’ being set for our spring mice, the lives and jokes from all have been woven into our memories.
Candidates for Designated lay and Diaconal ministry have been nurtured here and endless amount of food, especially beef, have been consumed! Motorcycles and even dogs have had the run of the building; continuing to bring both a healing and a uniqueness that is St. Paul’s United Church.